This was the first year I was away from Toronto for Christmas.
It was a strange feeling.
When the first of December rolled around, my kids kept saying, “It doesn’t feel like Christmas.”
I asked them, “What does it feel like then?”
Then like a BB Gun filled with pellets that don’t make you bleed or wound too deeply but still hurt like a mother, they fired all the memories of their Decembers past. And I bruise easy.
“Remember when you made us an advent calendar and we had a family activity to do every day?”
“Remember when we made those St. Lucia buns and gave them out to all our neighbours?”
“Remember our tradition of the Lord of The Rings marathon right before Christmas?”
“Remember the year we made quilts and stuffed animals for all of our little cousins?”
“Remember those snowflake pipe cleaner things we used to throw at the tree?”
“Remember all the baking Mom? ALL the baking!!!”
“Remember when we decorated the tree and the house all together…that was a favourite advent calendar family activity.”
“Remember our candlelight dinners just on Winter Solstice and not every night??”
Yes of course I remember. I still catch myself looking at them as if they were the same little people all huddled on that tiny love seat in the picture above. I remember helping them sew those felt slippers on that window ledge that they outgrew a long time ago. I remember putting their love notes and chocolate in that red Christmas truck falling over. I remember working tirelessly that December to finish THE family Christmas quilt.
December is hitting us hard in more ways than just my husband’s knee. Nothing makes my heart hurt more than coming to the realization that those holiday traditions I had steadily created for over ten years are gone. Traditions that my children grounded themselves in and came to look forward to each year have been ended unceremoniously by me and our move.
We went to visit family in Toronto for the last two Decembers. I wanted to somehow lessen the blow of the death of these traditions. We visited with family and friends like guests who were on vacation. The focus was spending time with the people we loved because we missed them and moving was still hard on the kids.
We decided not to go back to Toronto this December. In July when we made this decision, I was optimistic. We would make new traditions here. I already started planning some family activities in the fall for December – activities that reflected our new home and the physical and emotional growth of our family.
I was all set to start prepping everything as soon as we returned from California. Then…
Husband leaves for eight days for a funeral…
Husband injures knee…
And then the kicker…
Eldest daughter sends a text message saying she is not coming for Christmas…
I took off everyone’s favourite hat, “Mom’s Festive and Fun Hat,” and quickly donned the least favourite one, “Mom’s Utilitarian Survival Beret.”
The first day of December came and they looked around the house. Nothing. No calendar. No special love notes. No decoration. No family activity to countdown the month. Nobody asked about it but I knew they were a little disappointed. I just sighed in defeat and said, “I just couldn’t this year.”
That’s when the reminiscing began. Each memory shared felt like a tiny shard of glass getting lodged in my heart. I could see the headline now: “Death by Christmas Past.”
No, we couldn’t go to the tree farm and get our Balsam Fir and put all of our handmade ornaments on it. No, we don’t get to experience that magic of sitting by the window with a cup of hot cocoa mesmerized by the magic of the first snowfall of the season. No, we don’t have snow to build snowmen or go sledding with friends. No, we weren’t going to go ice skating at the park by our old house or by the big Christmas Tree at City Hall.
I held back the tears and held back what I was really thinking…
“Yes I suck and I have ruined all of your lives but you know what?
Come take a ride with me as I play your guide – the ghost of Christmas Past.
Let me share with you where I have been for the last 20 Christmases…
…the 5 million parties we went to when I really wanted to curl up in bed and sleep;
…the meltdowns when we did go to those parties when we all should have curled up in bed together;
…the all-night baking/sewing/gift-making/love-note writing/wrapping;
…invoking the spirit of my inner linebacker and grinch as I navigated the city and shopping;
…everyone getting sick right after Christmas like clockwork – Christmas, Boxing Day, Sick Week; and feeling a chill in my bones I couldn’t shake until May.
Chaos and overwhelm somehow became apart of my own inner tradition as I held the container for you all!
Of course, I didn’t say any of this because I knew what they meant. I made it fun. I made it special. I made it magical. I created and clung to those traditions like that Christmas quilt which I left behind in Canada.
At what point do traditions become stifling obligations? When do they shift from beautiful rituals to going through the motions because it’s something we always do? When do we let go willingly before life forces us to?
And just like our move, I pulled the rug from under them. I shook things up without even being fully aware of why again. I sensed that it needed to happen because our family was changing. Maybe I did it too abruptly, switching things up on them this year by not going to Toronto but when are we supposed to move on and leave traditions behind? You could outgrow traditions without even knowing it and then you are the one left holding on to the Christmas quilt, a collection of stitched together memories that you can’t let go.
In the picture below, Honest Ed’s no longer exists. A staple from my childhood memories with my grandparents. My eldest in this picture is not with us this December like she was in this picture when we visited Toronto two years ago during the holidays. And none of these winter boots fit my children anymore – the last remaining winter apparel we had.
My #2 and I found a small poinsettia plant at our local farmer’s market. She really wanted it. We bought it and brought it home. The kids eyes lit up. I knew why it didn’t feel like Christmas in the traditional sense. Their physical senses couldn’t register Christmas. But that symbol with all of its bright red and green was like an immediate association to the festive season.
I set this in motion 20 years agoAll those memories were related to the physicality of Christmas. They were all so little and that was part of the celebration. But now they have grown. Now we have the opportunity to focus on the essence of Solstice and Christmas – returning to the light and the hope of rebirth. These things we can talk about in the scope of creating new traditions.
I didn’t try to create from scratch traditions to replace our old ones. Something has to take place within us. We had to still honour our destruction of the old and sit in the darkness of the seed of potential. I have learned this lesson over the last two years as we have adjusted to our new life.
So we pared it down to the minimum and I saw a common thread.
My 9 year old wanted me to read lots of stories – the old winter and Christmas ones I used to tell.
My 11 year old daughter just wanted to bake chocolate chip cookies for Christmas. She remembered all of those Christmases baking together and wanted that one thing.
My 13 year old wanted to have a Christmas feast with family.
My 15 year old wanted to listen to holiday songs all of December in the car so we could all sing along.
My 20 year old wanted to make sure we all knew she loved us even if she couldn’t be here.
Chris and I wanted to see how our family could be of service. How could we help our neighbours?
We all wanted to spend as much time as we could with my aunt and my cousin who visited us for Christmas. We all hung out and talked and laughed and cooked and ate together. We connected deeper than we would have had we not moved so far away.
Although we replaced the snow with sunny beach days, the Christmas tree with a Christmas mobile made up of branches from our land, and hot chocolate with turmeric tea and honey, the same things gave us comfort and joy without the “extra frills” as my grandfather would say. Chris’ injury and our life in general in the jungle are great teachers for us to remember what is essential and how this time of year is an opportunity to listen to our natural rhythm to move even slower so we can show up for each other in small ways, giving what we can.
We didn’t have our own tree and our decorations were packed in a box waiting to be opened again someday when we could give them a home and incorporate them into our new traditions.
People say Christmas is a commercial holiday like other holidays. But should we throw the baby out with the bath water? Yes if you go through the motions without questioning why, I can see the need to throw it away. But if you celebrate with an intention of connection and grounding into a rhythm of the year, it can be a beautiful tradition that your family can return to as a way of celebrating each other and reflecting on how to enter into the light together wherever you are.
Even though my daughter wasn’t here for Christmas this year, we held her in our heart and talked to her on Christmas Day sending her love. It was because of our strong traditions for twenty years that we felt her absence deeply but it also reminded us of how strong our love is for each other that transcends distance and a sentimental quilt.